Polen Story # 3

Polen has the gift of gab, and not in the way that smooth talking ladies men have it or in the way that car salesmen have it, Polen can talk on a variety of subjects, at a very high level, and he’s usually right.


Bologna
“Guys! This is algebra, come on!”

I have spent nearly untold hours listening to Doug Polen talk. I went to Italy with him in 2000 and although his racing star had faded slightly at that point, he had not slowed down his words per minute rate in any conversation he could contribute to.

Polen has the gift of gab, and not in the way that smooth talking ladies men have it or in the way that car salesmen have it, Polen can talk on a variety of subjects, at a very high level, and he’s usually right. He has this thing where he never really can believe it when you can’t understand something in the same way he does. Subjects, say, like how the Apollo astronauts didn’t die on re-entry or how Armstrong basically crashed the lunar capsule into the moon. Doug, off the top of his head, knew the model numbers on the side of the capsule, how much fuel they had left when they touched down, the date that they landed on the moon and when they lifted off for return. He wasn’t a space buff, but clearly had a photographic memory and loved to analyze. Anything. Doug Polen was Google before Google.

When he was racing and winning, you had to be really careful when interviewing Polen post-race. This was well before the Internet, racing was only sporadically shown on regional networks and there was no live video in the media center at the track. Thus, post-race interviews were crucial info gathering opportunities and Polen had no problem telling or re-telling his account of the race, explaining why and how he had won. Being careful came into play when someone might ask Doug a hypothetical question. What if you hadn’t made that pass where you did, Doug? What if you hadn’t led the last three laps? Doug would then offer an in-depth analysis just on the subject of “what if” and he’d give you the play by play of a race that never even happened. Later, you could transcribe entire quotes from Polen on a race that actually never took place anywhere but in Doug’s highly analytical imagination.

Doug, to his credit, was never a rider who protected information or gave intentionally wrong information. He shared, maybe over-shared, as much as he could and he obviously took some joy when he found someone who didn’t understand something.

On that trip to Italy in 2000, I found myself in a small family restaurant, La Stella, right by the Ducati factory, with Polen, Ducati PR man Gary Schmidt and Ducati CEO Dan Van Epps. As we were waiting for the food to arrive at a small table, Polen was talking and we were listening, trying to hang on as he accelerated through his mental gears, summing up his latest point by stating that the most important factor in a Superbike of that period wasn’t the horsepower or the rider or the tires, it was the offset of the chassis.

“You know what offset is, right?” Polen asked the table of people. To a man everybody shook their heads no, that they didn’t. “Rake, trail? You know what that is and then how that affects offset on the chassis, right?

Someone shook their head no, probably me.

Polen’s shoulders slumped like he’d been dealt a blow. Polen said, “Oh maaaaan. Okay, here’s the deal.”

Longtime Polen insiders will shake their heads and grin at the mental image of Doug saying, “Okay, here’s the deal.” Everyone had heard it many times back then, and what followed was Doug explaining these amazingly complex math computations or biological base facts or something of that order. He did so quickly, using whatever visual aids were at his disposal.

“Guuuyyysss! Come on! This is just algebra. It’s pretty simple algebra. Ohhh, jeeeez. Okay, listen …” Polen said.

Polen’s mind raced and he thought of a visual aid that would help us understand. Quickly, Doug grabbed two plates from the table and he laid them on the floor of this small but semi-formal Italian restaurant. “These are the wheels.”

Polen’s shoulders slumped like he’d been dealt a blow. Polen said, “Oh maaaaan. Okay, here’s the deal.”

He grabbed all the silverware from the table and laid the knives end to end “Say, these are the forks” and grabbing a cup from the table, “this is the steering head”. He then used the spoons, forks and anything else he could find to complete the chassis of a motorcycle on the floor of the restaurant.

“Okay, these are the wheels and this is your chassis,” he said, “and when you change this, the offset, it determines how much traction the bike has or the balance of the bike, okay?”

He looked up from the floor hoping to see some glimmer of understanding in our eyes. He didn’t see it, so then he repeated the same words he had just finished saying only slower this time.

Luckily, when he finished, our food came, served on a giant tray. When he reached our table, the very formal Italian waiter just stared at Doug like he was insane, with all of the tableware on the floor in the crude shape of a motorcycle. Doug gathered it all up, re-set the table, and we ate. He was on to his next subjects. Football. Computers. Telephone infrastructure. How charcoal is made. Diesel fuel and diesel engines. Doug was fascinating, and, at the same time, exhausting to talk with.

I saw Doug Polen win, seemingly, a million races, first on GSX-R750s, Honda CBR600s and the like, and then later on amazing Ferracci Ducatis. I saw him win in World Superbike, AMA Superbike, Supersport; he was the most dominant rider of his era. I interviewed him often and enjoyed his thought-provoking answers. It’s funny, though, today, when someone mentions Doug Polen’s name, I don’t immediately think of Doug’s two WSBK titles, being the first rider to run a 1:49 at Daytona, his AMA Superbike title or seeing that beautiful 888 honk its way out of a corner.

For me, when someone says “Doug Polen” I immediately think of Doug, and his lesson on Superbike chassis offset, using plates and silverware to get his point across, all on the floor in a small restaurant in Bologna, Italy.

“Guys! This is algebra, come on!”


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